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How to Adapt for Tomorrow's Jobs: An Open Letter to My Niece and Nephew

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Dear Rebecca and David,

I am going to be frank: Getting a good job is going to be a lot tougher for you than it was for those of my generation. When I started work 40 years ago, the well-educated and motivated youngster still enjoyed a big advantage -- even a high school diploma was a plus then. And there were so many good-paying jobs!

Alas, many of those jobs no longer exist. Welding robots have replaced blue collar workers, containerization has done away with stevedores, cash machines with bank tellers, and fancy websites search for apartments, shop for books, make travel reservations and sell cinema tickets -- all of these have eliminated millions of white collar jobs.

Trade has enabled China or Romania to take over production of anything standardized -- from T-shirts to basic shoes and increasingly, more sophisticated products. The Internet and cheap telecommunications also enable the outsourcing of many service activities -- such as fielding queries by telephone, accounting, legal research and even medical diagnosis which can be done in India.

Soon, students will be able to learn online from Harvard, Oxford or Bocconi superstar professors, supported by local teaching assistants, and may no longer require the services of thousands of less-gifted teachers.

There will still be plenty of low-paying and insecure jobs, but jobs that many children who grow up in middle class families and invest in education like yourselves are not eager to take on. People will still need the streets cleaned, and more old people will need nursing than ever before. Migrants will take on many of those jobs and in a ruthlessly competitive global economy, wages will adjust to reflect the supply and demand for labor until those who want to (and have to) work will do so.

The good news is that you will have access to many more products and services than we ever had. Think of how much information and entertainment you can get almost for free on the Internet today, and how easy it is to communicate with your friends. Much of what you can do was not even conceivable in my time. When I started work, people crowded in apartments and very few young people could afford a car, a fancy motorcycle or a holiday abroad. Today, many more can -- and if they get a good job, they can live extremely well.

So where will tomorrow's good jobs be? The most recent American Bureau of Labor Statistics report says that the biggest growth will be in the health care sector -- doctors, nurses providing for the old and hospital administrators. Another big growth area will be in everything to do with computers, except for their manufacture, which will be done abroad. Declining professions will include, for example, automotive and textile workers, postmen and farmers. Many other traditional jobs -- such as secretaries -- will be transformed, requiring much greater capacity to act independently and deal with the unexpected.

But knowing where the jobs will be only takes you so far. You are very unlikely to perform well and keep a job that you are not passionate about. Moreover, the probability that you get a job, or even a profession and keep it for your whole working life is actually quite low. Technology and markets are changing too fast for you to count on that.

The more important question is: What skills you will need to be marketable, able to adapt and happy? Here is my list.

  • Competence - You are about to finish high school, which puts you ahead of over two-thirds of workers around the world. Finishing university will place you easily in the top 10 percent and a master's degree in the top 1 percent. But, what kind of competence will you need? A recent study found that the return on a liberal arts university education in the UK is negative -- which means that those who study say, drama, will make less money than those who stop at high school after accounting for the cost of college. This is not a recommendation to avoid the arts or history -- which are hugely important sources of understanding and life satisfaction -- but to make sure that, whatever you choose, you have a clear sight of the job market. Education per se is necessary but not enough to get a good job.
  • Creativity - To compete with robots and workers willing to do repetitive tasks for very little pay, you will need to think differently, see the big picture, and not be afraid to challenge convention. You will need to create, not just to produce.
  • Interpersonal Skills and Networking - Creativity in the workplace is nearly always a team effort -- and that requires ability to deal with people, something robots are not good at. And the need for skills in working with others means that your next job is much more likely to come from someone you know you than from an advertisement. You must cultivate your professional network assiduously.
  • Adaptability and Renewal - There is going to be another complication for you: You will probably live much longer! Already, one quarter of American men over 65 and one-tenth of those over 70 work. If you are going to be relevant 50 years from now, your skills will need continuous renewal.
  • International Outlook - Increased trade, foreign investment and migration will demand that you respect, understand and communicate successfully with people who are very different from you. A mastery of English and at least one foreign language -- such as Spanish, Mandarin, or French -- will be essential. Moreover, if you find yourself in a place where there are no opportunities for young people, you want to have the option to move, if necessary to another country.

So it is going to be a more competitive job market but also one where there will be plenty of opportunities, especially in the international sphere. Do you have a sense of adventure? Do you see change as a blessing rather than a curse? Then you have a huge advantage.

Good luck! I will be watching from far away.

All my love,
Uri

Uri Dadush is a senior associate in the International Economics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace